Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Think of Chinese kung fu movies and, if you're my age, you think of the stuff that used to play on the local independent channel on weekend afternoons. This was almost always pretty mundane material: dudes punching, kicking, leaping and avenging their masters. You didn't see as much of the swordplay movies, which often got much more fantastical. In part, that's because Chinese folklore and pop culture imagine a "martial world," something like an American comic book "universe" where men and women with amazing superhuman abilities battle one another. American audiences started to get more of a feel for this world as 21st century Chinese filmmakers took advantage of modern CGI to stage their fantasies on a competitively epic scale. But they'd been trying to render those fantasies on film for decades before, and Lu Chin-ku's 1983 extravaganza shows the influence of FX-driven American films like Star Wars and Superman that opened new possibilities for heroic fantasy cinema. Movies like Holy Flame exerted their own influence on global genre cinema. The rapid cutting and frantic, dynamic wirework on display here clearly influenced Sam Raimi's early work, which would exert a further influence of its own. Holy Flame also resembles a Raimi movie in its relentless inventiveness and an overall tone bordering on delirium. It'll often seem absurd, but you won't think it's stupid -- you'll think it's crazy.

The Holy Flame is, at least as far as this film is concerned, the ultimate weapon of the martial world, the one that'll give its owner mastery over all rivals. Naturally, it's coveted by all the major factions of the realm. It's an interesting feature of this film that the Shaolin Temple is presented as just another of these factions, and nowhere near first among equals. The Shaolin grandmaster we see is, like his peers, an egotistical blowhard and a bit of a coward. The exception to the rule is the all-female Taoist order of Erh Mei, or more specifically its grand master Jing Yin (Leanne Lau). She's more ruthless and apparently more powerful than her peers, and she has a balance-tipping ally in lone-wolf menace "Monster" Yu (Jason Pai Piao). They lead the hunt for a heroic young couple who know the "creed" of the Holy Flame -- knowledge of its secret location and how to acquire it. With their infant son and daughter in tow, this pair opens the film on the run, and they are quite doomed. The children survive, however. The son is rescued through the heroic intervention of "The Phantom," aka the "Yama Elder" (Phillip Kwok), who repels Jing Yin and Monster with his overwhelming Holy Laugh. In a good humor he can summon a tempest that can rip you apart from the inside out if it doesn't dash you against some solid object. He might have destroyed the bad guys if he didn't fear harming the baby boy, whom he takes under his wing and trains to avenge his parents on a date set 18 years from now. The baby girl, meanwhile, had been thrown clear when her mother was killed, and is found by Jing Yin, who raises her as a Erh Mei nun who believes that the Phantom killed her parents.

Meet the villains: Jing Yin (Leanne Lau) and Monster Yu (Jason Pai Piao)

After teaching the boy the Holy Laugh, the Phantom sends Wan Tien Sau (Max Mok) on a mission to fetch the Holy Flame, which he'll need to take revenge on the still-more powerful Jing Yin and Monster Yu. A charismatic young minion of Monster is also on the trail of the Flame, but our hero saves his life and earns his friendship while rescuing him from some animated flesh-dissolving ghosts. After Wan gets the Flame after a lengthy battle with giant flying Chinese ideograms, he and his new pal get sidetracked when the lovely daughter of a friendly snake wrangler is kidnapped by the Blood Sucking Clan.

It turns out that too many cartoons are bad for you.

Regrettably, the Hong Kong edition of The Electric Company was cancelled due to excessive violence.

They don't do any blood sucking themselves, apparently, but use the blood of virgins to awaken a green, English-speaking undead whatsit just in time to fight the good guys -- and that's after the clan leader had brought monsters painted on banners to violent life. After much mayhem, the Holy Flame serves as a stake to take out the quasi-vampire. The snake wrangler's daughter (Mary Jean Reimer) ceases to be a helpless damsel once she gets infected by the blood from a snake bladder. As often happens in such cases, she acquires the power to shoot bolts of energy from her infected "Mighty Finger," and Phantom agrees to train her in using her new power.

At the Erh Mei temple, Jing Yin carefully guards her adopted daughter Wan Dan Fung's virginity, in keeping with the order's vows of chastity. Holy Flame is a family film, albeit an extremely violent one; there isn't the least hint of lesbianism within the Erh Mei ranks -- though as if to make up for that the young anti-heroine is befriended by the Peter Pan-like Golden Snake Boy, the resemblance consisting of "his" obvious portrayal by a woman. Dan Fung's virginity is essential because it'll enable her to read the instructions for the other Holy Flame that Jing Yin already has in her possession. The girl will be the abbess's instrument for ruling the martial world and her safeguard against whatever vengeance Phantom is planning. The masters of the other orders still don't realize that Jing Yin already has a Flame and continue to pester her for information. They end up as the comedy relief of the picture, lamely threatening the abbess by running in a circle around her, none of them brave enough to make the first attack. All the while the bored villainess fans herself while her minions complain that the other masters are leaving puddles of sweat on the floor. While this is going on, Monster sends his increasingly conflicted protege to steal Jing Yin's Flame from Dan Fung to give himself more leverage with the abbess. Despite this betrayal, the two villains team up to finally exterminate the other annoying masters.

Once Golden Snake "Boy" sets Dan Fung straight about her history, she reacquires the Yin Flame and teams up with her long-lost brother and his Yang Flame for the ultimate 18th anniversary showdown with Jing Yin and Monster. The siblings are going to need all the power they can muster, because the bad guys have developed an immunity to Phantom's Holy Laughter, making them potentially invincible. That may neutralize the old man, but the snake girl and her Mighty Finger are ready to even the odds if the villains try anything funny. The stage is set for climactic minutes of non-stop superpowered mayhem, filmed with the naive enthusiasm of a child throwing his action figures at each other and making up new abilities as he goes along.

Holy Flame powers, activate!

There's a certain childlike joy about the whole film that transcends some of its technical limitations. Wirework wasn't what it would become, and the flying characters often look out of control as they careen about the often-impressive sets. The Holy Flames themselves are very unformidable looking. In fact, they look like plastic paddles with detachable fake diamonds in the middle. But their existence is really just a pretext for special effects that are flung about with infectious glee. Holy Flame has a lot of the inventive nuttiness of more horrific contemporary films like The Boxer's Omen, without anyone vomiting snakes and worms. It also benefits from a cast of committed performers who sustain the story's fairy-tale quality. Leanne Lau, a 23 year old actress playing a middle-aged "hag," makes a great villainess, menacing and amusing at the same time in a Wicked Witch of the West sort of way. She's so charismatic that you're tempted to root for her against the comparatively bland good guys -- the better fantasy movies often leave you this option -- but you don't mind her getting a well-deserved comeuppance. This is the sort of movie that keeps you wondering what the filmmakers will come up with next, and keeps you eager to find out. Arguably a classic of its kind, it's one of the most purely fun movies I've seen in a long time.


venoms5 said...

Great write up, Sam! This movie is definitely nutty. I never bothered with the R1 DVD for this one as I was satisfied with the HK disc. I used to own a fullscreen copy from the Ocean Shores LD some years back. Oddly enough, the Mandarin track has different music from the Cantonese one. Not sure if the US disc ported over both or not.

Jet Li's KUNG FU CULT MASTER was something of a loose remake of this movie. I haven't seen it in a while but I remember Sammo Hung utilizing the "Ghostly Cries" technique that Kuo Chui uses here.

Lu Chin Ku did some other similar Wuxia movies that were almost as crazy as this one in one way or another. Stuff like LADY ASSASSIN, THE AMBITIOUS KUNG FU GIRL, LOVER'S BLADES, BASTARD SWORDSMAN 1 and 2 and the amazingly brutal SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT. His first movie for Shaw's is available on DVD here--THE MASTER aka THREE EVIL MASTERS. It's a kung fu movie and not a swordplay, though.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, the WellGo DVD has a Chinese track (I don't recall if they identified it as Cantonese or Mandarin) and what they billed as a "new" English dub. I watched the native track originally, but played the dub while harvesting screencaps and noticed the different names given the guy with the "holy laugh." I'll definitely be interested in more stuff from the director.

venoms5 said...

I highly recommend SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT and LADY ASSASSIN if you can find them now. I reviewed the former a long time ago if you're interested in seeing caps from it, although at least one screen cap at the bottom kind of spoils something from the end.

His two BASTARD SWORDSMAN movies are out on DVD over here now, too.

Lu Chin Ku preferred doing serious Swordplay movies, but did a few of them as comical adventures since that's what the public wanted at the time. He also did a BLACK MAGIC type movie prior to signing with Shaw Brothers called MAGIC CURSE. It's pretty wild and stars Pai Piao, the white haired villain teamed with Liu Hsueh Hua in HOLY FLAME. Incidentally, she's the LADY ASSASSIN in that movie.

Richard of DM said...

This is a favorite! Great write-up, duder.